Considered the greatest composer that the Czech nation ever produced, Antonin Dvorak wrote a career’s worth of classical works for orchestra, symphony, and choir that survive as some of the most majestic and acclaimed works of nineteenth-century Romantic music. Dvorak’s most lasting legacy to musical history, however, is the way in which he infused his work with melodies and elements from Bohemian folk tunes, Gypsy rhythms, and even African-American spirituals. The freshness of spirit and sense of delight that are hallmarks of Dvorak’s music, according to many scholars, are considered emblematic of the composer’s pleasant, unassuming personality and lifelong devotion to both family and a beloved home in the Czech countryside.
Dvorak was born in Nelahozeves, Bohemia in 1841, a village about 45 miles north of Prague. He was the first of eight children born to Frantisek Dvorak, a second generation butcher who also ran a local drinking establishment. The elder Dvorak was musically inclined and proficient on the zither and violin, thus little Antonin was exposed to music at an early age, and was reportedly a keen participant in the traditional folk dances that were an integral part of village social life. As a child, Dvorak sang in the church choir and was a student at the village school. The local organist, a man named Josef Spitz, taught Dvorak the violin, and his gifts gained him a place as a junior member Nelahozeves’s village band.
Around the age of eleven Dvorak was sent to another town to learn the butcher’s trade. The following year, in 1853, he arrived in the town of Zlonice to study German—Bohemia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and German was the language of government, trade, and commerce. Dvorak was fortunate enough to find a language teacher, Antonin Liehmann, who was also an accomplished musician, and Liehmann began training him on the organ, piano, and viola; he also gave him a solid grounding in musical theory. But understandably, the youth was not learning a great deal of German, and so Dvorak’s father, still convinced of his son’s destiny as a butcher and tavern keeper, sent him to a more rigorous school. He returned to Zlonice upon completion, and with Liehmann’s help convinced his father to send him to Prague for further musical study. An uncle offered to pay the tuition.
At the age of 16, Dvorak entered Prague’s Organ School. He graduated two years later in 1859. He began playing in local ensembles in Prague, but was too poor to buy musical scores; he did not even have his own piano and spent a great deal of time in a friend’s quarters.
For the Record…
Born September 8, 1841, in Nelahozeves, Bohemia (now Czech Republic); died May 1, 1904, in Prague; son of Frantisek (a butcher and innkeeper) and Anna Zdenek Dvorak; married Anna Cermakova, November, 1873; children: Otakar, Otilie Suk, Aloisie, Anna, Antonin, Magda. Education: Prague Organ School, 1857-59.
Violinist and viola player in National Opera Orchestra of Prague, 1862-71; wrote first symphony, 1865; private music teacher in Prague, 1861-1878; organist at St. Adalbert’s, Prague, 1874; professor of composition, Prague Conservatory, 1891, and director, 1901-04; National Conservatory of Music, New York City, director, 1892-95.
Awards: Prizewinner in Austrian State Stipendium competition, 1874, 1876, and 1877; Order of the Iron Crown, Austro-Hungarian empire, 1889; elected member of Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts, 1890; honorary doctorates from Prague University, Cambridge University, 1891; first musician to be named to the Austrian House of Lords, 1901.
In 1862 he began playing in a small orchestra which evolved into the Provisional Theatre Orchestra. Dvorak became its principal violinist, but also played the viola over the next decade for this leading Prague ensemble. In 1866 Bedrich Smetana, considered the first great composer to emerge from Bohemia, became the orchestra’s conductor as well as a mentor to Dvorak, encouraging him to write music based on traditional folk tunes.
During the 1860s Dvorak played in cafes and theaters, and also taught music privately. He wrote his first symphony, No. 1 in C Minor, The Bells of Zlonice, in 1865, and also began to write for the opera. Much of this early work was reminiscent of the heavy, somber compositions of Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms, the most famous living German composers of this era. But it was an 1872 setback that forced Dvorak to re-examine his inspirations: with the Prague Philharmonic, Smetana conducted the overture for an opera Dvorak had written, but King and Charcoal Burner was deemed too complicated for staging. Depressed, Dvorak destroyed some of his older compositions, but in the end rewrote King and Charcoal Burner and used far more Bohemian melodies and themes. It debuted successfully in Prague in November of 1874.
In 1873 Dvorak took a post as the organist at St. Adalbert’s in Prague. He also married Anna Cermakova, one of his former students, that same year. His first true success also came in 1873 when a choral work, Heirs to the White Mountain, was enthusiastically received at its initial performance in March. He had based the work on a patriotic poem recalling a Czech defeat in 1620. The following year, with a newfound sense of confidence in his abilities, Dvorak entered the Austrian State Stipendium competition. Brahms sat on its jury, and was greatly impressed by the young Czech and his ability to integrate Bohemian folk melodies into a serious classical opus. Dvorak was awarded a respectable prize that year, and Brahms helped him find a publisher for his music.
In 1878 the music for Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances was published and these eight Bohemian folk melodies, based on the polka and similar dances from his native area, were immediately praised for their originality. The spirit of the work also fit well with the emergence of Czech nationalist sentiment in this era, as its people struggled to maintain an identity separate from the Empire. Slavonic Dances were originally written as a piano work, but Dvorak later orchestrated them; their first public performances took place the following year in Hamburg, Germany and Nice, France. The continued good reception that greeted performances across Europe brought the composer great acclaim. Dvorak finally began to gain some measure of financial stability, and was able to purchase a home for his growing family in the Czech countryside at Vysoka.
In 1877, one of the Dvorak’s children died in infancy, and in grief Dvorak—a devout Roman Catholic—he began writing his Stabat Mater. This was a Latin poem from the early 14th century that several other well-known composers had also set to music. Dvorak’s version was first performed in 1880, and its debut in England nearly three yeas later marked the beginning of Dvorak’s successful liaison with British audiences and the London Philharmonic. His works became extremely popular there, and Dvorak frequently sailed there to debut new works.
Dvorak continued to write operas based on Czech lore. The Jacobin and Dimitrij, both of which emerged during the 1880s, were well received. Kate and the Devil (1898) won him a prize of two thousand kroner from the Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts. The Cunning Peasant (1877) enjoyed numerous performances across Europe over the course of several years, though for some years a debut in Vienna—the center of the opera world—was stymied by nationalist sentiment inside the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Officials at the Vienna Opera had declined to stage Dvorak’s Czech operas, and requested that he write a German-language work. He balked at the insult, and felt to do so would be a betrayal of his Czech pride. Yet Dvorak continued to enjoy great success abroad during the 1880s. His cantata, The Spectre’s Bride, was well received at its debut in 1884, though the composer often dreaded the task of conducting this four-to-five hour performance himself. St. Ludmilla was a similar choral work that debuted in London in 1886 with a 350-member choir, based on the Slavic saint and her conversion to Christianity.
In 1891 Dvorak became a professor of composition at the Prague Conservatory, but left the following year when he was hired by the National Conservatory of Music in Manhattan to serve as its director. His generous $15,000 a year salary was paid by Jeanette Thurber, one of the school’s founders, but her family fortune-soon declined as a result of Wall Street financial crises, and she grew arrears in his salary. At the conservatory, he was expected to take a light teaching load and serve as a composer in residence. During this time he became greatly enamored of African-American and Native American music, and began writing his best known work, Symphony from the New World, No. 9 in E Minor, during this period. First performed at Carnegie Hall in December of 1893 by the New York Philharmonic, it made its European debut—conducted by Dvorak during a trip home—in October of 1894 in Prague at its National Theater.
In parts of Symphony from the New World can be heard melodies Dvorak borrowed from indigenous American sources, which fascinated him as much as the rustic peasant dances of his native Bohemia once had. “Fierce debate raged about whether Dvorak had used Negro and American Indian tunes as the basis for this most loved of symphonies, or whether it was a Czech work that had captured the spirit of American national melodies,” noted Jeremy Nicholas in The Classic FM Guide to Classical Music. “A century later it seems hugely unimportant when we are swept along with Dvorak’s masterly orchestration and his unforgettable themes.” Nicholas also noted that in England a few bars from Dvorak’s No. 9 became indelibly associated with a brand of brown bread after it they were used in a memorable television advertisement.
From 1892 to 1895 Dvorak lived on E. 17th Street in New York City, and spent summers in lowa in a small town founded by Bohemian immigrants called Spillville. He also traveled to the Chicago World Exhibition in 1893, and conducted an orchestra there on Czech Day. But he was home sick for the Bohemian countryside, the house in Vysoka, and his family so despite the debt still owed him by Thurber, he ended his ties with the Conservatory in 1895 and returned home.
Dvorak returned to his professorship at Prague Conservatory, and became its director in 1901. That same year he was honored in his homeland on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday, and became the first musician ever to be named to the Austrian House of Lords. He devoted his last years to working on an opera, Armida, but despite his international recognition he had achieved, he lived in relative poverty as a result of unfavorable contracts with his music publishers. The composer was diagnosed with a kidney disease and contracted influenza after Armidsi’s first ill-fated performance. He died several weeks later on May 1, 1904. A national day of mourning was declared, and Dvorak was honored with a burial in Vysehrad Cemetery, where many prominent Czechs are also buried.
Dvorak: No. 1 in C Minor, The Bells of Zionice, with Berliner Staatskapelle, Berlin Classics, 1979.
Dvorak: Stabat Mater, Psalm 149/Jiri Belohlavek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Chandos, 1991.
Dvorak: The Greatest Hits, Reference Gold, 1993.
Dvorak: Overtures, Vanda, Carnival, Othello, My Home, Naxos, 1994.
Dvorak: Symphony from the New World, No. 9 in E Minor, BBC Radio, 1995.
Dvorak: Opera Overtures and Preludes/Robert Slankovsky, Marco Polo, 1996.
Slavonic Dances/Berliner Philharmonic conducted by Lorin Maazel, EMI Classics, 1997.
Dvorak: Rusalka/Mackerras, Fleming, Heppner, et al., London/Decca, 1998.
Dvorak: Slavonic Dances Op. 46 & 72/Yoel Levi, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Telarc, 1999.
Nicholas, Jeremy, The Classic FM Guide to Classical Music, Pavilion, 1997.
Sadie, Stanley, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan, 1980.
Soleil, Jean-Jacques, and Guy Lelong, Musical Masterpieces, Chambers, 1991.
American Record Guide, September/October 1996, p. 115; September/October 1998, pp. 83-101.
Dvořák, Antonín (Leopold)
Dvořák's mus. is a particularly happy result of the major influences on his art: Wagner, Brahms, and folk mus. His innate gift for melody was Schubertian and his felicitous orchestration, often reflecting natural and pastoral elements, is of an art that conceals art. But a tendency to regard him as blithely naïve would be both unjust and misleading, for his mastery of form and his contrapuntal and harmonic skill are the manifestations of a powerful mus. intellect. The nationalist feeling in his mus. is beautifully integrated into classical structures and his use of Cz. dances and songs, such as the furiant, polka, skočná (reel), dumka, and sousedská (slow waltz), is in no way bizarre. His syms., the vc. conc., and perhaps above all his chamber mus. show the best side of his work; the operas, apart from Rusalka, are only just beginning to travel outside Czechoslovakia; and the choral works which won him such a following in late Victorian Eng. are due for rehabilitation. For many years it was customary to credit him only with the 5 syms. pubd. in his lifetime, but the 4 early examples have now been accepted into the canon and the whole series is numbered chronologically. Prin. works:OPERAS: Alfred (unpubd.) (1870); King and Charcoal Burner (Král a uhliř) (1871, totally re-composed 1874, rev. 1887), Op.14; The Stubborn Lovers (Tvrdé palice) (1874), Op.17; Vanda (1875, rev. 1879, 1883) Op.25; The Peasant a Rogue (Šelma sedlák) (1877), Op.35; Dimitrij (1881–2, revs. 1883, 1885, 1894–5), Op.64; The Jacobin (1887–8, rev. 1897), Op.84; Kate and the Devil (Čert a Káča) (1898–9), Op.112; Rusalka (1900), Op.114; Armida (1902–3), Op.115.SYMPHONIES: No.1 in C minor (The Bells of Zlonice) (1865) (no Op. no., recovered 1923, pubd. 1961); No.2 in B♭ (1865) (no Op. no.); No.3 in E♭ (1873), (no Op. no. but orig. Op.10); No.4 in D minor (1874) (no Op. no. but orig. Op.13, pubd. 1912); No.5 in F major (1875, rev. 1887), Op.76 (orig. Op.24 and formerly No.3); No.6 in D major (1880), Op.60 (formerly No.1); No.7 in D minor (1884–5), Op.70 (formerly No.2); No.8 in G major (1889), Op.88 (formerly No.4); No.9 in E minor (From the New World) (1893), Op.95 (formerly No.5).ORCH.: sym.-poems: The Water sprite (Vodník), Op.107 (1896); The Noonday Witch (Polednice), Op.108 (1896); The Golden Spinning Wheel (Zlatý Kolovrat), Op.109 (1896); The Wood Dove (Holoubek), Op.110 (1896); Heroic Song, Op.111 (1897); Ovs.: My Home, Op.62a (1882); Hussite (Husitská), Op.67 (1883); Cycle, Nature, Life and Love comprising Amid Nature, Op.91, Carneval, Op.92, and Othello, Op.93 (1891–2); Serenade in E major, str., Op.22 (1875); Suite in D (Czech), Op.39 (1879); Serenade in D minor, wind, vc., bass, Op.44 (1878); 3 Slavonic Rhapsodies in D, G minor, and A♭, Op.45 (1878); 8 Slavonic Dances, 1st series, Op.46 (1878), 8 (2nd series) Op.72 (1886); Legends, Op.59 (1881); Scherzo capriccioso, Op.66 (1883); Symphonic variations, Op.78 (1877, orig. Op.40).SOLOIST & ORCH.: vc. conc. in A major (1865, with pf. acc. only. Orch. Raphael 1928, Burghauser 1975, vc. part ed. Sádló); Romance for vn., Op.11 (1873–7, arr. of andante con moto of str. qt. in F minor, Op.9, of 1873); pf. conc. in G minor, Op.33 (1876); Mazurka for vn., Op.49 (1879); vn. conc. in A minor, Op.53 (1879–80); Rondo for vc., Op.94 (1893); Forest Calm, for vc. (1891); vc. conc. in B minor, Op.104 (1894–5).CHAMBER MUSIC: string quartets: F minor, Op.9 (1873), A minor, Op.12 (1873), A minor, Op.16 (1874), D minor, Op.34 (1877), E♭, Op.51 (1878–79), C major, Op.61 (1881), E major, Op.80 (1876, orig. Op.27), F major (the ‘American’), Op.96 (1893), A♭, Op.105 (1895), G major, Op.106 (1895). Also several without Opus no. incl. Cypresses (Cypřiše) (1887); string quintets: G major, Op.77, with db. (1875, orig. Op.18), E♭, Op.97 (1893); string sextet: A major, Op.48 (1878); pf. trios: B♭, Op.21 (1875), G minor, Op.26 (1876), F minor, Op.65 (1883), E minor (Dumka) Op.90 (1890–1); pf. qts.: D major, Op.23 (1875), E♭, Op.87 (1889); pf. quintet: A major, Op.81 (1887); Bagatelles (Maličkosti), 2 vn., vc., harmonium (or pf.), Op.47 (1878); Terzetto, 2 vn., va., Op.74 (1887); vn. sonata: F major, Op.57 (1880); vn. sonatina in G, Op.100 (1893).CHORAL: Stabat Mater, Op.58 (1876–7, orig. Op.28); The Spectre's Bride, Op.69 (1884); St Ludmila, Op.71 (1885–6); Mass in D, Op.86 (1887, rev. 1892); Requiem, Op.89 (1890); The American Flag, Op.102 (1892); Te Deum, Op.103 (1892); Hymn of the Czech Peasants (Hymna ceského rolnictva), Op.28 (1885); with 4-hand acc., Hymnus, Op.30 (1872, orig. Op.4); Amid Nature (Vpřírodě), 5 ch., Op.63 (1882).SONGS: cycle, Cypress Trees, 18 songs to words by Pflager (1865), unpubd. in orig. form but pubd. as 4 Songs, Op.2, 8 Love Songs, Op.83 (1888) and Cypress Trees for str. qt; 5 Evening Songs, Op.31 (1876); 3 Modern Greek Songs, Op.50 (1878); 7 Gipsy Songs, Op.55 (1880; No.4 is Songs my Mother taught me); 4 Songs, Op.82 (1887–8); 10 Biblical Songs, Op.99 (1894, Nos. 1 and 5 are orch.).PIANO: Silhouettes, Op.8 (1879); Dumka and Furiant, Op.12 (1884); Dumka, Op.35 (1876); Theme and Variations, Op.36 (1876); Scottish Dances, Op.41 (1877); 4 Pieces, Op.52 (1880); 8 Waltzes, Op.54 (1879–80; Nos. 1 and 4 arr. for str. qt.); 6 Mazurkas, Op.56 (1880); Poetic Tone Pictures (Poetické nálady), Op.85 (1889); Suite in A, Op.98 (1894, arr. for orch.); 8 Humoresques, Op.101 (1894; No.7 is the famous one); Éclogues (1880); Album Leaves (1881).PIANO DUETS: 16 Slavonic Dances, Opp. 46 and 72 (2 sets of 8; also for orch.); Legends, Op.59 (1881, also for orch.); From the Bohemian Forest (Ze Šumavy), Op.68 (1884).
Czech composer; b. Nelahozeves (Vltava), Sept. 8, 1841; d. Prague, May 1,1904. He studied the violin with his village schoolmaster, left home at 16 to enter the Prague organ school, supported himself as a violist and later organist at St. Adalbert's Church, and became professor of composition at Prague Conservatory. He frequently visited England to conduct his music, and from 1892 to 1895 he was artistic director of the National Conservatory in New York.
The popularity of his "American" works—the "New World" symphony, the "American" quartet, and the cello concerto—has overshadowed that of his other compositions. Since the 1950s increasing interest has been shown in his other symphonies, the piano quintet and string quartets, and his vocal music.
Dvořák's deep religious feeling is clearly shown in his sacred vocal works. His Stabat Mater (1876), the most popular of these, and his Requiem (1890), for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, are of oratorio dimensions; his 149th Psalm and Te Deum are shorter. The oratorio St. Ludmila (1886) is uneven and often lapses into the "choir fodder" style of the Victorian oratorio. More noteworthy are his intimate Mass in D (1887) for soloists and chorus (originally with organ and low string accompaniment) and his Biblical Songs (1894) for voice and piano. The choral works contain most of the elements of Dvořák's style: folklike melodies, idiomatic vocal and instrumental writing, harmony that is rich without being cloying, and loose but coherent formal structure.
Bibliography: Complete Works, ed. o. Šourek et al. (Prague 1955–); Letters and Reminiscences, ed. o. Šourek, tr. r. f. samsour (Prague 1954). o. Šourek, Zivot a dílo Antonína Dvořáka, 4 v. (1922–33); Antonín Dvořák: His Life and Works (New York 1954), abr. Eng. tr.; Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. e. blom, 9 v. (5th ed. London 1954) 2:831–845. a. robertson, Dvořák (London 1945). r. longyear, The Larger Sacred Choral Works of Antonín Dvořák (Master's diss. unpub. University of North Carolina 1954). g. chase, America's Music (New York 1955) 386–392. n. slonimsky, ed., Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (5th ed. New York 1958) 415–416. m. beckerman, ed. Dvořák and His World (Princeton, N.J. 1993). d. r. beveridge, "Dvořák's Dumka and the Concept of Nationalism in Music Historiography," Journal of Musicological Research 12 (1993) 303–325; ed. Rethinking Dvořák: Views from Five Countries (Oxford 1996). h. crohn, "Antonín (Leopold) Dvořák," in International Dictionary of Opera, ed. c. s. larue, 2 v. (Detroit 1993) 370–373. m. ivanov, In Dvořák's Footsteps: Musical Journeys in the New World, ed. l. karel, tr. s. slahor (Kirksville, Mo.1995). w. landowska, "Thoughts on Modern Music: Tchaikovsky and Dvořák," in Landowska on Music, ed. and tr. d. restout, (New York 1964) 343–344. j. parsons, "Rusalka, " in International Dictionary of Opera, ed. c. s. larue, 2 v. (Detroit 1993) 1158–1160. j. c. tibbetts, Dvořák in America (Portland, Ore.1993).
[r. m. longyear]
Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904), one of the greatest Czech composers, is most noted for his attractive and apparently effortless melodic gifts and the unfailing brilliance of his orchestration.
Antonin Dvořák was a nationalistic musician, basing his style on melodic and rhythmic patterns found in the folk music of his own country. At the same time he was not excessively concerned with program music, and he worked most successfully in instrumental forms utilizing traditional classical structures, such as symphonies and chamber works. Even those compositions which contain programmatic titles tend toward a general atmosphere rather than a musical structure that follows a preconceived literary outline.
Born on Sept. 8, 1841, in a small town near Prague into a moderately poor worker's family, Dvořák showed considerable interest in music as a child. When he was 16 he moved to Prague to continue his education, studying at the Prague Organ School from 1857 to 1859. He received not only a thorough musical training that introduced him to the works of the great masters of the past, but also one that exposed him to the more "advanced" composers like Robert Schumann and Richard Wagner.
In 1861 Dvořák joined the orchestra of the National Theater in Prague as a violist, where he remained for 10 years, performing for a while under the leadership of Bedřich Smetana. During this time Dvořák wrote numerous compositions, but not until 1873, with a performance of his grand patriotic work Hymnus for chorus and orchestra, did he achieve some renown. His compositions attracted the attention of Johannes Brahms, who prevailed upon his publisher to print some of Dvořák's works. The two composers became close friends.
Always composing an apparently effortless output of music, including the popular Slavonic Dances (1878), Dvořák soon became a professor of composition at the Prague Conservatory. In 1884 he made the first of a series of trips to London to conduct his own music. There he earned a commission to compose a choral work, The Spectre's Bride. He received an honorary doctorate degree from Cambridge University in 1891, the same year he composed his popular Carnival overture.
After successful tours of Russia and Germany, Dvořák accepted an invitation in 1892 to became the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. While in the United States he wrote what is probably his most famous work, the Symphony in E Minor, From the New World (1893). There has always been some confusion as to the extent to which Dvořák either imitated or directly borrowed melodic material from American folk music. All the music is original, however, and despite the fact that the theme of the second movement has been made into the song "Goin' Home," it is not an African American spiritual but a melodic invention by Dvořák. Perhaps the greatest problem presented by the New World Symphony is that it tends to blind audiences to the merits of some of his other symphonies. One in G major (1889) and another in D minor (1885) are certainly its equal in musical quality. In 1893 he also wrote his American String Quartet, the best-known of his 13 quartets, and a charming sonatina for violin and piano, a masterpiece in miniature.
In 1895 Dvořák returned to the Prague Conservatory, completing his cello concerto, probably the most outstanding concerto ever written for that instrument, and a perennial concert favorite. From this point on he concentrated on symphonic poems and operas. Rusalka, the ninth of his 10 operas, completed in 1900, was his last major work. Very popular in Czechoslovakia although rarely performed outside the country, Rusalka is a stunning lyric fantasy, an evocative retelling of the familiar story of the water nymph who fell in love with an all-too-human prince. In 1901 Dvořák became the director of the Prague Conservatory. He died on May 1, 1904.
Two major studies of Dvořák are John Clapham, Antonin Dvořák: Musician and Craftsman (1966), which deals mainly with the music, and Gervase Hughes, Dvořák: His Life and Music (1967), which treats the biographical data and the works in chronological order. An earlier but still useful work is Alec Robertson, Dvořák (1945). Good background studies are Gerald Abraham, A Hundred Years of Music (1938; 3d ed. 1964); Rosa Newmarch, The Music of Czechoslovakia (1942); and Alfred Einstein, Music in the Romantic Era (1947).
Butterworth, Neil, Dvořák, London; New York: Omnibus Press, 1984, 1980.
Butterworth, Neil, Dvořák: his life and times, Speldhurst Eng.: Midas Books, 1980.
Clapham, John, Dvořák, New York: Norton, 1979. □